Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Preview: Michigan State women's hoops looks to rebound versus the struggling Illini

February 4, 2021
Freshman guard Nia Clouden (24) drives the ball up the court during the women's basketball game against Illinois at Breslin Center on Jan. 24, 2019. Nic Antaya/The State News
Freshman guard Nia Clouden (24) drives the ball up the court during the women's basketball game against Illinois at Breslin Center on Jan. 24, 2019. Nic Antaya/The State News —
Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

Fresh off of back-to-back losses to Maryland and Indiana, the Spartans are looking to rebound as they face a struggling Illinois squad, who is 2-10 including nine straight losses in the Big Ten.

The Illini are currently winless in the conference this season as their offense has been sputtering, averaging a measly 60.1 points per game. 

Illinois women’s basketball Head Coach Nancy Fahey’s roster has three players from the state of Michigan, including Aaliyah Nye who is an East Lansing native and played basketball at East Lansing High School.

”I think she's a really nice, athletic skilled player,” Michigan State women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant said. “I mean she can shoot the three-ball. She has a nice pull-up jumper. She's a complete game kid. I think she's done a really good job.”

The Spartans are still dealing with the effects of their two-game pause at the beginning of this year as starter Tory Ozment is still recovering from her bout with COVID-19 as she only played limited minutes in a loss to Indiana last Sunday.

Here are some keys to the game as Michigan State looks to get back on track.

Michigan State’s keys

1. Limit transition

Despite the 2-10 record, Merchant believes the Illini pose problems on offense for the Spartans.

“They are as good as anybody in the league at playing North and South,” Merchant said. “They play four people that they'll high ball screen you, they'll side ball screen you and kind of dribble-drive and they’ll weave you. You can kind of imagine what that offense looks like, and that's a challenging thing to guard against anybody. It doesn't matter who they are, but I think they've done a really good job with their personnel in terms of running an offense that really fits them.”

With these North and South guards like Nye who can get to the basket and run in transition, it will be crucial for the Spartans to force Illinois to beat their half-court defense and not get beaten on the drive to the rack.

2. Establishing their half-court offense

The Spartans on offense have struggled when they’re not able to get easy baskets in transition this season, especially in their last two losses where slow offensive quarters and halves held them back from putting together a complete game

“I think that's something we have to continue to work on and get better,” Merchant said. “We've been really working the last couple days on our offensive execution, whether that be our quick hits or our primary, mainstay offense that we run and just really doing a better job of executing when we needed a bucket. Making sure the right person gets the right shot at the right time.”

This Illinois team thrives running in transition, for Michigan State to execute key number one, the Spartans will need to succeed in their half-court sets to be able to slow down the pace, and ultimately use their talent advantage over the Illini to get buckets in their half-court sets.

3. Establish the interior

The Spartans have begun to get solid efforts from their post with the insertion of Alisia Smith and Janai Crooms into their starting lineup.

“I think both those kids have really started to feel comfortable out there playing well together,” Merchant said. “I think Janai does a really good job of getting the ball in the post regardless of who it is, Smitty (Smith) has been beneficial obviously. Smitty’s done a better job of not being in foul trouble too. Early on, she was always getting in foul trouble and that kind of hindered some of her ability to kind of play through things. I need her to play, she's got a great motor as a big kid. I think the two of them have really added a boost and depth that we needed really at the guard spot and certainly at the five spot.”

Illinois’ keys to the game

1. Attack the basket

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For all the reasons said above, Illinois needs to attack the rim the entire night. 

The Spartans have had issues with foul trouble all year, with the speed and athleticism of this Illini backcourt, they need to attack the basket, draw fouls and finish at the basket to create offense and get shots at the charity stripe to have any chance to score with the Spartans.

2. Establish a shooter

Illinois is shooting at a horrific rate from beyond the arc at 25% and only has two players shooting at above 30% with Nye and Jeanae Terry.

Frankly in today’s basketball world, if you can’t shoot, you’re not going to win a lot of games. If the Illini can get a couple of their players going from beyond the arc, it will force Merchant and the Spartans one defense to respect their shot and not clog the paint for their guards to drive in and draw fouls or get good looks at the basket.

3. Crash the boards

If there’s one advantage the Illini have, it’s size.

Again, if the offense is going to be this bad, try to make it as easy as possible. Eva Rubin stands at 6-foot-5 for the Illini and Kennedi Myles is 6-foot-2 along with height advantages or matches at most positions.

If the Illini can make it easy on themselves and get second-chance opportunities, they’ll have a shot to break an eight-game losing streak to the Spartans.

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